August 1, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan was assigned to command the new Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan’s objective was to protect Washington while clearing the Confederates out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley once and for all.
By this time, President Abraham Lincoln and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant were under mounting criticism for sustaining such horrific casualties while Confederates under Lieutenant General Jubal Early continued roaming throughout the Shenandoah Valley and even threatening Washington. As Grant later wrote:
“It seemed to be the policy of General (Henry W.) Halleck and Secretary (of War Edwin M.) Stanton to keep any force sent there, in pursuit of the invading army, moving right and left so as to keep between the enemy and our capital; and, generally speaking, they pursued this policy until all knowledge of the whereabouts of the enemy was lost. They were left, therefore, free to supply themselves with horses, beef cattle, and such provisions as they could carry away from Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. I determined to put a stop to this.”
Major General David Hunter commanded the Federal Army of West Virginia, but he had not been effective in stopping Early. In June, Grant had suggested putting Sheridan in charge of such an operation, but Stanton rejected it on account of Sheridan’s young age. But now, after meeting with Lincoln at Fort Monroe, Grant insisted that Sheridan be given the job. He notified Halleck on the 1st:
“I am sending General Sheridan for temporary duty whilst the enemy is being expelled from the border. Unless General Hunter is in the field in person, I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.”
Grant also recommended that the four departments surrounding Washington and the Valley be merged into one central command, with Sheridan commanding in the field and Hunter handling the administrative duties. The new 37,000-man army would consist of Hunter’s Army of West Virginia, three divisions of VI Corps (from the Army of the Potomac), two divisions of XIX Corps (from the Army of the Gulf), two divisions from Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps within the Army of the Potomac, and 12 artillery batteries.
Grant sent Sheridan to take command without waiting for approval from Washington. Meanwhile, Hunter’s Federals remained camped on the Monocacy River in Maryland, unable to chase down Early’s Confederates. Hunter reported on the 1st, “It appears impossible for the officers of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to keep their men up. So many are suffering from sunstroke, and all from the intense heat and constant marching, that I fear, unless they have some rest, they will be rendered very inefficient for any service.”
Halleck informed Grant, “If Sheridan is placed in general command, I presume Hunter will again ask to be relieved. Whatever you decide upon I shall endeavor to have done.” Halleck wrote again at 2:30 p.m. on the 3rd:
“Sheridan had just arrived. He agrees with me about his command, and prefers the cavalry alone to that and the Sixth Corps… He thinks that for operations in the open country of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Northern Virginia cavalry is much better than infantry, and that cavalry arm can be much more effective there than about Richmond or south. He, therefore, suggests that another cavalry division be sent here, so that he can press the enemy clear down to the James River.”
Grant replied, “Make such disposition of Sheridan as you think best.” Lincoln wrote Grant that same day:
“I have seen your despatch in which you say ‘I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.’ This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have received from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of ‘putting our army South of the enemy’ or of following him to the death in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”
Grant responded on the 4th, “I will start in two hours for Washington & will spend a day with the Army under Genl Hunter.” Confederate General Robert E. Lee was informed of the new Federal army being formed and notified President Jefferson Davis:
“I fear that this force is intended to operate against General Early, and when added to that already opposed to him, may be more than he can manage. Their object may be to drive him out of the Valley and complete the devastation they commenced when they were ejected from it.”
Lee and Davis agreed that they must reinforce Early’s Confederates to protect the Shenandoah Valley harvests and the Virginia Central Railroad needed to sustain the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Petersburg.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 537; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 442-43; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11066; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11299-30, 11341-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 646; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-93, 100-01; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 545-46, 548-51, 553; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 757; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 315